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New Jersey's bail reform system is working, court data show

New Jersey's bail reform system is working, court data show

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While a report issued Tuesday argues criminal justice reform is working in New Jersey to reduce jail populations while keeping communities safe, the effects may not be as visible in Atlantic County, officials said.

The rate of recidivism and failure to appear in court are slightly higher across the state compared to one year under the previous monetary bail system and the jail population is significantly less, showing it’s “working as intended,” according to the 2018 criminal justice reform report by the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

But the effects on the Atlantic County jail are less dramatic, County Executive Dennis Levinson said. The jail population is about the same as before, at about 550 inmates, due to previous reforms, such as electronic monitoring programs for low-level offenders, he said.

“Our decrease was not like the other counties,” Levinson said. “We’re pretty proud of what we’ve been doing here, and it’s pretty effective.”

The Bail Reform and Speedy Trial Act, implemented Jan. 1, 2017, aimed to decrease jail populations and save costs for counties by eliminating bail in most criminal cases and using a public safety assessment score that helps a judge determine whether to release or detain a defendant.

If a defendant is detained, the state has 90 days to indict them after they are detained and then another 180 days to bring the case to trial.

The report was the first full year of statistics released by the court on the act’s effectiveness across the state compared to the money bail system.

Defendants charged with indictable offenses on pretrial release increased slightly, from 12.7 percent in 2014 to 13.7 percent in 2017, according to the report, while those charged with new disorderly persons offenses increased from 11.5 percent to 13.2 percent during those same years.

In addition, court appearances decreased slightly, from 92.7 percent in 2014 to 89.4 percent in 2017, according to the report.

And on Oct. 3, 2018, a jail population study showed there were 6,000 fewer people incarcerated in the state compared to the same date in 2012, according to the report.

Still, not all officials think the system is working as well as it could.

Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said in a statement that, from his perspective, the largest area of concern are the accused who represent the most danger to society and should be incarcerated, including those who are likely to harm their victim during the course of the case and might abscond from justice.

Bail reform ensures that if a defendant is detained, their case is handled as quickly as possible and that nonviolent offenders who aren’t a flight risk can be monitored by a less costly system, he added.

The problem is when repeat nuisance offenders — shoplifters and nonviolent drug offenders — are arrested over and over again.

“Business owners, residents and patrol officers are annoyed and frustrated that the same people are arrested for the same offenses repeatedly within the same week, only to be released to commit the same behavior,” Tyner. “That is an area that should be tweaked to give all of the law-abiding citizens the relief we truly deserve.”

Bail is still used, but rarely, across the state. In 2018, 102 defendants out of 44,383 were ordered to post bail, and the majority of those were due to violations, such as failing to appear in court, according to the report.

Moving forward, the report identified as areas for improvement assessing risk for domestic violence, notifying defendants about upcoming court dates and getting those on pretrial release greater access to services.

Even though Levinson has been an outspoken critic, he’s said the “kinks are out” and it’s working.

“I admit, I was very critical of the program in the beginning,” he said. “But it was reworked to the point where I can say I support it in most cases.”

Contact: 609-272-7241 Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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